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Anti-malaria drug may be used to treat asthma, say researchers

The breakthrough for Dr Eugene Ho Wanxing from NUS came when he discovered that the drug, Artesunate, also possessed anti-inflammatory agents that are specific to asthmatic conditions.

SINGAPORE: A drug commonly used to treat malaria is showing promising signs that it could also be used to help control asthma more safely and effectively than other treatments available on the market, a scientist from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has found.

The breakthrough for Dr Eugene Ho Wanxing - a 30-year-old recent PhD graduate from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at NUS - came when he discovered that the drug, Artesunate, also possessed anti-inflammatory agents that are specific to asthmatic conditions.

The discovery was the result of four years of research alongside seven NUS researchers and Associate Professor Fred Wong, who is head of pharmacology at NUS’ Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

The findings were recently published in the journal Metabolomics and the team was also invited to pen a review on the effects of Artesunate by the renowned Pharmacology and Therapeutics journal.

“Artesunate can suppress the inflammation in asthma and is considered as an alternative to standard treatments such as inhaled steroids,” said Assoc Prof Wong.

“As an anti-inflammatory agent, Artesunate controls the inflammation in asthmatic lungs, decreasing the severity and sensitivity of the airway by reducing mucus production. Overall, there is a protective effect.”

Dr Ho added: “Steroids are good for short-term episodes, but are detrimental in the long run, leaving side effects such as obesity. Artesunate reduces the number of inflammatory cells, reduces DNA damage and decreases oxidative stress, which destroys tissue cells.”

On why such research was important, Dr Ho said asthma was a “global health concern and one of the most major chronic non-communicable respiratory diseases in the world”.

Statistically, there are more than 300 million asthmatic patients worldwide and the mortality rate is 250,000 a year, he said. A fifth of the children in Singapore are affected by asthma.

“The increasing prevalence and morbidity of this disease has prompted us to better understand it and identify better controls,” Dr Ho added.

The drug is derived from Artemisia, a plant that was used to treat malaria during the Vietnam War and has since been used to treat cancer, allergies and inflammatory conditions.

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